Wharton’s Big Push Into Startups

The Wharton School

The Wharton School

One of the cornerstones of the research that has been done here at Wharton – and it’s an issue that has come up in the research again and again – is, ‘are there any unique traits of entrepreneurs that distinguish successful from unsuccessful entrepreneurs and distinguish managers from entrepreneurs?’ And the answer to this in studies that have been done in the United States and across the world has been shown (again-and-again) that there are no unique traits that distinguish entrepreneurs from non-entrepreneurs and successful entrepreneurs from unsuccessful entrepreneurs. And that’s very important. In fact, when I teach an entrepreneurship class, I distribute a survey and students have to fill out that questionnaire before class. And what they do in the first class, I analyze for them the questionnaire to show them that each and every student has what it takes to be the next Bill Gates or whoever their hero in entrepreneurship may be. This is really to communicate the fact that no one has any unique traits and that even if you don’t have X or Y in your skills or characteristics, you can still be an entrepreneur. Some people say you have to be a risk grabber. In studies by Kenneth R. MacCrimmon and Donald A. Wehrung (Taking Risks: The Management of Uncertainty), entrepreneurs are, in fact, risk-averse….but they’re much better at mitigating the risk than others.

So there is a lot that we can teach, but it’s not about the unique traits you’re born with.

Let’s say a stranger came up to you and asked, “Is an MBA a worthwhile investment for an aspiring entrepreneur?” How would you answer that question (and why)?

Leinweber:  [Our alumni] is fairly unified in saying ‘absolutely yes,” it is a worthwhile investment. In fact, one alumni member described coming to Wharton to get the MBA as, in itself, being in an incubator that helped him in many, many ways access resources and knowledge and develop the expertise that allowed him to write a business plan and launch his business. He felt absolutely that he could not have done that had he not come here.

Amit: Entrepreneurship encompasses many fields in management, whether this is leadership, managing people, marketing, financing, or strategy. All of these are skills that you learn in the entrepreneurship program. So [let’s say] you come in with a background in engineering, for example, and you have great idea or a new technology that will allow you to do things that could not be envisioned even yesterday. To bring that know-how and innovation to the market means assembling a team, managing the people, doing the engineering, product development – and you also need to worry about marketing, finance, and accounting. There are lots of issues associated with launching a successful business and we teach you the tools and skills to do that.

My view is that an MBA is an invaluable asset. If you don’t have that, you have to hire someone or bring in a co-owner to bring that knowledge and those skills to the table. From that standpoint, what we do here, especially with the Venture Initiation Program (offered in both Philadelphia and San Francisco), which has the incubator that has 30 companies in it (with many of them led by Wharton students) is combine with students from the school of engineering or medicine (and so on) to bring different skills and know-how to the table. What the MBAs are trying to do is being able to manage that and integrate the various elements that are needed to actually create a viable company that is growing and eventually will be profitable.

Clare Leinweber

Clare Leinweber

Leinweber: The appealing part, from where I sit in watching the whole process, is how democratic it is. It’s very cross-disciplinary, across school and across division. The students are all learning from each other. And we also have undergraduates involved. Sometimes, the undergrads are leading the MBAs in certain aspects based on their background, whether they have [technical] skills or are very gung-ho in hitting the ground and wearing out their shoe leather in talking to customers (a fearless and intrepid approach in understanding their customer base). Sometimes, the learning goes both ways. So I just want to emphasize that it’s not just the Wharton students who are coming into the incubator. They are coming from all the different schools who are just as much in the trenches and learning from each other.

MBA students are required to choose a major as part of their degree. Entrepreneurial management is at an all-time high. We’re the third most popular after finance and general management. We’re seeing incredibly strong interest here.

Amit: The idea that Wharton is an awfully big school enables us to provide students with a very, very rich experience with a lot of activities and social entrepreneurship.

Wharton offers a number of activities to help students gain entrepreneurial skills. For example, you have the Wharton Business Plan Competition and the Wharton business incubator (VIP). Could you tell us about these activities that help students gain entrepreneurial skills and mentoring outside of the classroom?

Amit: I will start by telling you, what our vision is for entrepreneurship at Wharton. Our tagline, by the way, is “enabling entrepreneurship at Penn.” Our vision is to gain global recognition as a leading institution for the creation and dissemination of knowledge and practices about entrepreneurship and to foster the creation of profitable entrepreneurial enterprises that enrich the society and build social wealth. Our strategy is to create cutting edge knowledge. That’s the foundation focused on the formation, growth and management of new enterprises in both independent and corporate settings – to develop signature programs that apply the knowledge in support of the venture creation process. Finally, [we want] to engage in this dialogue with entrepreneurs, investors, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem individually and collectively.

To do all of that, we have organized ourselves in three buckets with close interface among these buckets. First, there is the knowledge creation function which is the foundation. That includes our research center. Then there is knowledge dissemination, which includes our Goergen Entrepreneurial Management Program, which has over 20 different entrepreneurial courses. Most importantly, in order to link the research and the classroom experience and the theory and the practice, we’ve created a host of activities and programs that apply the knowledge. These are our co-curricular programs and they’re divided into three main buckets.

One is the venture development programs, where we have the Business Plan Competition, the Venture Initiation Program both in Philadelphia and our San Francisco campus, the Wharton Venture Award, and a spring pitch event both here and in San Francisco.

Then, we have career development and mentoring, co-curricular programs supporting students interested in pursuing entrepreneurial career paths. We also have an entrepreneur-in-residence program, a global entrepreneurial internship program, intern fellowships, as well as our small business development sector.

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